Mia Ricci’s first day was off to a bad start. She’d been excited about her new role as a program manager at Rescue, the oldest and largest aid organization fighting global poverty. She’d risen early; walked her dogs; eaten breakfast with her boyfriend, Mateo; packed a lunch; and still managed to get to the office before 9:00. She’d thought arriving early would make a good impression.
When Mia walked into the lobby, she saw a few familiar faces from her previous visit, but the receptionist was the only one to greet her. His name was Anthony, and although she thought they’d bonded last time, he looked up at her quizzically. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“It’s great to see you again,” Mia said. “I’m Mia, the new program manager.”
“Oh, right,” Anthony said, unsmiling. “Take a seat, and I’ll give you some paperwork to fill out while I grab your manager. It’s Michael, right?”
Mia had been in the building for less than five minutes and already she felt discouraged. Things didn’t improve from there. Anthony couldn’t find Michael, so he escorted her back to a dim room full of cubicles. The one person already there, a support team coordinator named Jessie Carbone, introduced herself quickly, explained that IT hadn’t set up Mia’s desk yet, suggested that she sit at a vacant workstation, and went back to typing.
At 10:30 Michael finally stopped by to hand Mia a stack of reading material and explain that his day was packed but he hoped to catch up with her later that afternoon. He never did.1CASE STUDY CLASSROOM NOTES
1Studies show that people ignored by their managers feel more alienated than those who are overtly treated poorly.
Mia spent five hours coordinating with HR and IT via her cell phone and personal email account. She ate lunch at the borrowed desk. A few other employees came in and out during the day, and she smiled warmly and waved, but no one seemed to know who she was. Finally a technician arrived with a laptop and a monitor, which he installed at the desk farthest from the window.
Mia found herself thinking wistfully about her previous workplace, Azzurro, a start-up that used IoT-enabled container sensors to help retail businesses better manage waste. She’d joined it just after graduating from the University of Bologna with a degree in international management and had been promoted to business analyst in less than four years. She liked the work and the people.
But then she met Saul Rizzo, a senior HR director at Rescue, at a networking event. He mentioned a role at the organization’s new outpost in Bologna—one of its 92 offices worldwide—and Mia was immediately intrigued. The job would include setting up data and reporting systems and working with a seasoned Rescue manager to outline critical business processes and identify key performance indicators.
At an interview a few weeks later, Saul had offered her a salary nearly double what Azzurro was paying her and promised that she would not only have a personal growth plan but also be able to work on the ground once a month helping populations in crisis. It had seemed like a no-brainer to make the move. Mateo agreed.
Now, considering whether she should book a meeting with Michael for the next day—basically forcing him to onboard her properly—Mia wondered if she’d made the right decision.22A primary reason new hires leave is bad onboarding. And organizations with standardized processes to welcome employees see 62% greater new-hire productivity and 50% greater new-hire retention.
Just then she got a text from Mateo: “How was it???”
She replied with a thumbs-down emoji and “I need a drink. Let’s meet at the usual spot.”
“It was a disaster,” Mia said after recounting her workday. Mateo nodded empathetically.
“Do you think I made a mistake? I mean, I really liked Azzurro, but the humanitarian work sold me on Rescue.”
“Don’t forget the pay!” Mateo said jokingly. Mia sighed. As the primary breadwinner in their household (Mateo was a struggling artist), she was already feeling the pressure.33People under stress often suffer from emotional exhaustion, making it hard to find the energy to change their situation.
“Seriously, though,” he went on. “It’s too early to know. It’s such a different culture, and Rescue is a huge organization. How many employees did Azzurro have?”
“A hundred,” she said. “Rescue has thousands.”
“Right. And they’re just setting up this branch. It may be a particularly chaotic time.”44How much slack should Mia give Michael because the office is newly opened?
“It’s just so weird to have no official welcome, no onboarding, not even any real assignment. I’ve spoken with Michael only twice—on the phone during the interview process and very briefly this morning. You’d think he’d want to at least have a conversation with me on my first day.”
“I’m sure it was an anomaly,” Mateo said. “Tomorrow will be better. Rescue is reputable, and on paper this is a good career move.”
“I know, I know. You’re right.” Mia gulped her wine. She just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.
An Annoying Assignment
The following afternoon Mia finally met with Michael. “Mia, welcome,” he said brusquely. “Sorry I couldn’t get to you earlier—I’ve been tied up in strategy meetings. As you can see, we’re still getting our systems in order. Let’s talk about your first project.”
He said he wanted her to audit the processes of three departments—warehouse, supply chain, and delivery—that were essential to Rescue’s missions. Each unit combined employees transferred from other Rescue offices and recent hires brought in to help experiment with new strategies. Mia’s job was to see whether those strategies were more efficient than Rescue’s current ones.
The assignment was not what she had expected, but she nodded and smiled.
“Anything else?” Michael asked, turning back to his laptop.
“Actually,” Mia said, “when I was recruited, Saul mentioned that I’d have a chance to participate in some field projects.”
Michael looked surprised—and a little annoyed. “Hmm. I don’t mean to disappoint you, Mia, but that’s not what I had in mind for this position. We’re just building this operation, and we need internal staff members to stay focused on their responsibilities here.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
“OK,” Mia said, trying to hide her dismay.55Some HR experts say that before starting a new job, people often focus more on the potential of their role than on the actual tasks they’ll be doing—which is why they are often disappointed.
Mia spent the next three weeks toiling away at the auditing project, but it wasn’t easy. Michael had forgotten to introduce her to a few department heads, so although some were friendly and forthcoming, others ignored her repeated emails or only reluctantly shared information. She’d asked Michael for advice several times, but he’d basically blown her off. And when her work was finished, it took her five days to get half an hour with him to present her findings. He’d been complimentary but then asked her to track some new metrics. She asked about broadening the scope of her duties, but his phone rang, and he waved her away. “Sorry, I have to take this. Let’s discuss next time we meet.”66How should Mia approach a boss who is shutting her out?
Desperate to confide in someone besides Mateo, Mia asked Jessie if she’d ever had any problems getting Michael’s attention.
“It’s not his fault,” Jessie said. “It’s this organization. It’s just such a bureaucracy. He has to run every new idea up the food chain. We’re always short-staffed because they’re always opening new offices. And they move people around so much that everyone’s constantly in learning mode, trying to get up to speed on a new geography. Don’t get me wrong—we do amazing work out in the field. We do help people. But inside, it’s a slog.”77Is Mia’s negative experience due to poor leadership, onboarding, organizational structure, or all three?
“Do you ever get involved in that outside work?” Mia asked.
“Oh, no. We’re the back office. Our job is to help the people who are experts at fieldwork do theirs.”
Her heart sank. Mia decided she’d email Saul and request a video call. To her surprise, he replied within the hour and said he had 30 minutes free at 5:00.
Mia was determined to be up-front about her disappointment. She outlined how unnecessarily difficult her initial assignment had been and how rarely she interacted with Michael, even though she thought part of her job was to partner with him on performance indicators. “Plus he doesn’t seem open to my doing any direct humanitarian work, even though that was a big pull for me,” she said.
Saul looked concerned. “I know, and I mentioned that to him. My sense is that the audits are just the first step and that you’ll get into the more interesting work soon. He may have forgotten our discussion because things are so hectic right now.” He asked her to be patient and promised to talk with Michael. “We’re lucky you’re here, Mia. Let’s see if we can turn things around.”88Are Mia’s expectations too high?
An Ambiguous Message
That evening Mia was doing the dishes after dinner when her phone signaled a new email. It was from Michael. She called Mateo into the kitchen to hear the message: “Dear Mia, I’m writing to let you know that I spoke with Saul this evening. We discussed your role and the misalignments that resulted in a negative experience for you. Given the demands of my role, it’s difficult for me to meet regularly with all the members of my team, but I’m happy to set up a weekly check-in to support you. There are certain tasks that will greatly benefit the organization that I’d like you to stick with. But there may be other responsibilities we can add that would be more in line with your interests. Best regards, Michael”
“Hmm,” Mateo said. “Is he sorry for being such a bad boss since you started, or is he angry at you for talking to Saul?”
“I’m not sure,” Mia replied. “He’s saying the right things, but it’s such a cold, formal email, so I can’t help feeling that he sent it only because he got in trouble. Maybe going over Michael’s head was a mistake.”99Leadership experts say it’s a good idea to try to talk to a new boss about your struggles. But they also say that bad managers are rarely open to hearing feedback about their failings.
“Well, you’ve tried talking to Michael and didn’t get anywhere. And it’s clear he didn’t understand what Saul promised you, so they needed to have a conversation. Even if he’s saying all this under duress, at least he’s saying it.”
“But can I trust him? Can I trust the organization? It has such a great reputation, but from the inside it seems like a mess.”
Mateo hugged her. “You’ve never been the kind of person to settle,” he said. “If it’s that bad, maybe it’s time to cut your losses.”
“And do what? I need a job.”
“Of course. We rely on your income. But what did your boss say when you left Azzurro? She said you could always come back.”
“Doesn’t everyone say that?”
“No. They loved you there.”
Mia smiled, but she was still conflicted. “I guess I could reach out to recruiters, too.”
“See—you have options.”
“I know. I need to think more about what I’m going to do.”
“Well, I’m here to talk whenever you need to. I’ll support your decision.”
Question: Should Mia stick it out or look for a new job? The Experts Respond
Lauren Barraco is the head of product marketing at Sendoso.
IF YOU DON’T like your current situation, you have the power to change it. I would encourage Mia to actively start looking for another job. She needs to reframe her negative experience at Rescue as an opportunity to consider what will really make her happy. Does she want to be more involved in a career track that includes fieldwork? Is an office environment with natural light and standing desks (as opposed to a dark space filled with cubicles) important for her mental health?
We already know she’s a marketable candidate. She was recruited and offered twice her salary to work at a respected nonprofit. And because she has a steady income, she has time to be strategic and consider other job options. Looking for a job is like a job in itself, but it will be worth it if Mia can find one better suited to her goals and personal needs.
I experienced a similar situation. A few years ago I joined a prestigious news outlet. Like Rescue, it was a large organization with serious bureaucracy problems. Processes weren’t streamlined, and people needed approvals at many levels to get things done. This lack of agility meant that the organization struggled with employee development.
As a result, my manager and I had different expectations regarding my role. Mia is facing the same thing. In a bureaucracy, without a supportive boss, it can take months, even years, for the situation to change. And Michael’s icy email implies that he already resents Mia for going over his head—a red flag that suggests he may not be open to change. Even if his reasons are justified, their relationship will probably continue to be emotionally exhausting for Mia.
What Mia can control is how she reacts. She can think about what she’s looking for in a work environment and culture and outline where she wants to be in five to 10 years. She can update her résumé and craft a story to explain her short time at Rescue. I’d recommend that she tell an honest one: “I was recruited, but in the end there were some misalignments between the role I was told I’d be taking on and the work I was doing.” She doesn’t need to go into a lot of detail.
I left the news outlet years ago and found a job at a much smaller company that was a better cultural fit. I was also given more leadership opportunities, which allowed me to launch my long-term career. Later on I learned that the structural problems at the news outlet ended up hurting the business because it couldn’t keep up with changing technologies.
If Mia stays at Rescue, she risks spinning her wheels and halting her professional development. She needs to be a self-starter and put her happiness first.
Danielle Piendak is the director of individual giving administration and donor information at the 92nd Street Y.
MIA SHOULD STICK with Rescue for a bit longer. She is only a month in and needs to give it more time. Change always comes with some challenges.
I’d encourage her to revisit what originally drove her to take this role. First, the organization is very much more in alignment with her interest in humanitarian work than Azzurro was. And although she is understandably excited by the prospect of actually working in the field, she will soon learn how crucial internal support staff members like her are to making this work possible. Nonprofits today depend on strong data and analytics to remain competitive in their fields and to present valid, evidence-based reporting to their partners.
Second, this role is more challenging than her previous one was. She is taking on new and different responsibilities, which naturally come with a period of discomfort. But that’s normal. At the end of the day, this job is going to stretch her in ways that her previous role didn’t. She will walk away with a much broader skill set in a field she is passionate about.
Without putting the blame on anyone in particular, it appears that there were some failures in the interview process that have led to a misalignment between Mia’s expectations and Michael’s. It doesn’t seem to me that this is the result of poor leadership or an issue of organizational structure, either of which would be of greater concern.
As written, Mia’s job description—setting up data systems and identifying key performance indicators—is a very internal one. If we could go back a month, I would caution her to take a closer look at what exactly she was being hired to do and to clarify her day-to-day responsibilities. For example, “Does identifying KPIs mean I’d be going into the field, or would that work take place in the office?”
What Mia can do now is revisit that job description to see whether it matches the tasks she’s been assigned so far. Recruiters do sometimes make promises to expand roles when they are trying to draw in candidates. Since Mia was indeed promised fieldwork by Saul, Michael has a responsibility to follow through. When and how that will happen needs to be made clear.
It’s a good sign that Michael addressed this issue head-on, even if he did so in an email. He may have been doing it grudgingly, but he seemed to be offering Mia an olive branch and a chance for the two of them to get on the same page.
If Mia chooses to stick it out for at least six months, she can take small, proactive steps to improve her situation. It is Michael’s responsibility to make time for weekly check-ins, but it is Mia’s responsibility to set the agenda for those meetings. Before going into them, she should outline what she wants to discuss, including questions she has about upcoming projects and how to overcome challenges she may be facing. She needs to take the initiative to get guidance from Michael rather than waiting for him to offer it.
Even if we weren’t in the midst of an economic downturn, I’d advise Mia to stay on for now. If she is still unhappy in the role after six months, maybe she does need to think about other possibilities. But she will walk away with a stronger résumé and a better skill set, which will position her to have more options.